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Terrified in Mexico
The towering genius of Malcolm Lowry

February 25, 2024

by Philip Gambone

In July 1940, the English novelist Malcolm Lowry wrote to his literary agent to say that he had completed "a book that I really feel might be important." Lowry had been working on the book, Under the Volcano, ever since he and his first wife, Jan, had gone to Mexico in 1936. The country's allure had immediately distracted him from other writing projects. Under the Volcano took over his writing life.

Lowry was premature in his estimation of the book's readiness for publication. It wasn't for another five years, in the late spring of 1945, that he finally mailed his agent a much-revised version. "Of course, it may not be any good at all: five years ago, I deceived myself into thinking I had pulled it off, as of course I had not done: however, I feel now it may be a pretty good job…. My impression is that the majority of its faults in the older version have been done away with."

The manuscript found its way to the British publisher, Jonathan Cape, who suggested that Lowry make further substantial revisions before he would consider it. Lowry acknowledged that the book contained "deformities"—reflecting "the deformities of my own mind"—but defended his version, saying that his conception of the whole thing was "essentially poetical."

The novel was, he told Cape, "concerned principally with the forces in man which cause him to be terrified of himself. It is also concerned with the guilt of the man, with his remorse, with his ceaseless struggling toward the light under the weight of the past, and with his doom." He went on to say that the novel's theme was that "only against death does man cry out in vain." But Under the Volcano is so big, complex and ambitious, that, in fact, no one theme adequately sums up its reach and its richness.

In the words of Stephen Spender, it is "an account of one man's soul within the circumstances of [history] and perhaps the best account of a ‘drunk' in fiction." The drunk in question is the novel's protagonist, Geoffrey Firmin, who, Lowry told Cape," is used to symbolize the universal drunkenness of mankind during the war, or during the period immediately preceding it."

Cape finally accepted the book for publication in 1946, ten years after Lowry had first conceived it. It was published the following year. While some early critics found it wanting—"confusing," they said, lacking in "juice and flavor"—the novel's reputation as a modernist masterpiece was soon firmly established. By the fall of 1947, there were foreign-language editions planned in France, Norway, Sweden, Germany, Switzerland and Denmark.

Chapter One, a kind of epilogue, is set a year after the main events of the novel. Its purpose was to establish, Lowry said, "the mood and tone of the book as well as the slow melancholy rhythm of Mexico itself—its sadness."

Two men are discussing the death of their friend Geoffrey Firmin, a former British consul. Firmin was, they agree a sick man, "always muy borracho." Nevertheless, one reminds the other, "Sickness is not only in body, but in that part used to be call: soul." He was a man "in continual terror of his life," though with all his faults, a man who "might have actually proved a great force for good."

We are in Quauhnahuac (Lowry used the Indigenous name of Cuernavaca), where "wherever you turned the abyss was waiting for you." This abyss, an actual ravine next to which the Consul once lived, is the first of Lowry's many symbols. It is Hell, Dante's Malebolge, the terror that awaits every man who has lost his way.

The Consul is a man in search of an elusive peace of mind and soul. He drinks for many reasons, among them the loss of the great love he once had for Yvonne, his ex-wife. "Nothing," he writes to her, "can ever take the place of the unity we once knew and which Christ alone knows must still exist somewhere…. Sometimes I am possessed by a most powerful feeling, a despairing bewildered jealousy which, when deepened by drink, turns into a desire to destroy myself by my own imagination…. Love is the only thing which gives meaning to our poor ways on earth. Oh Yvonne, we cannot allow what we created to sink down to oblivion."

The rest of the novel takes place a year before, on the Day of the Dead, 1938. The world is on the brink of chaos. To the Consul's house come two visitors, Yvonne, who hopes that he will turn back from the "stupid darkness" of his self-destructive drinking, that they can start a new life together; and Hugh, the Consul's half-brother, with whom she's had a dalliance. Hugh has been to Spain, supporting the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War. "I wasn't in time to save the Ebro, but I did strike my blow," he says.

While Hugh has been putting himself in danger for a noble if doomed cause, the Consul, a would-be writer, fitfully pursues a more obscure, elusive destiny. He is haunted by memories of the glowing potential he once had as a young man, the "fire of genius" he feels is still burning under his reckless and irresponsible behavior. Haunted, too, by the sense that he is living in a paradise, but alone, suffering, drowning in sorrow, and cut off from God. The guilt of the world weighs on his shoulders.

Lowry and his second wife in Cuernavaca

At one point, the Consul, drunk on mescal, stands before a statue of the Virgin and prays. "Though my suffering seems senseless, I am still in agony. There is no explanation of my life. Please let Yvonne have her dream—dream?—of a new life with me—please let me believe that all that is not an abominable self-deception…. Teach me to love again, to love life." A phrase that keeps cropping up in the novel is No se puede vivir sin amar, it is not possible to live without loving. As the Consul, in his continued agony and self-destructiveness, searches for a way to love, he is plagued by his demons—the terror of eternity, his shame at not helping a dying Indian on the side of the road, the fascist terror that looms over Europe, the brutality of the Spanish Conquest. "It seems to me," he tells Hugh, "that almost everywhere in the world these days there has long since ceased to be anything fundamental to man at issue at all." In such a world, love and wisdom seem to have no home. For the Consul, nothing less than the survival of the human spirit is at stake.

Lowry's genius was to take the "whirling cerebral chaos" of the Consul's mind (and his own?) and turn it into a cascading torrent of gorgeous, captivating—and, yes, challenging—prose. The rich density of Joseph Conrad and Hermann Melville, the stream-of-consciousness techniques of Joyce—it's all there in Lowry's own stunning verbal brew. As the novel wildly careens to its tragic end, the Consul achieves a radiant moment of lucidity: "How could he have thought so evil of the world when succour was at hand all the time?"

Lowry died in 1957, leaving behind a significant collection of manuscripts, many of which have now been published. The Modern Library rated Under the Volcano eleventh on its list of 100 Best Novels of the 20th century. Likewise, the novel made Time magazine's list of 100 best English-language novels from 1923.

Under the Volcano is not an easy read, but it's the kind of novel—"one of the most towering novels of the century," said The New York Times— that is a must for readers of serious literature about Mexico. For readers of serious literature, period.


Philip Gambone, a retired high school English teacher, also taught creative and expository writing at Harvard for twenty-eight years. He is the author of five books, most recently As Far As I Can Tell: Finding My Father in World War II, which was named one of the Best Books of 2020 by the Boston Globe.


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